updated 1/9/2004 11:44:50 AM ET 2004-01-09T16:44:50

A top Parmalat official wanted by police investigating the multibillion dollar fraud scandal at the Italian food and dairy giant returned to Italy from Venezuela on Friday. Separately, police searched the offices of Bank of America in Milan.

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Giovanni Bonici, the head of Parmalat’s Venezuela branch, had been named with seven other people in a Dec. 31 arrest warrant issued by Parma prosecutors. Authorities suspect them of committing fraud that resulted in Parmalat’s bankruptcy, as well as false accounting.

Bonici, who had been in Venezuela at the time the warrant was issued, was seen entering Parma’s courthouse Friday morning with his attorney, Antonio Tuccari, according to witnesses at the courthouse.

Parmalat de Venezuela has said that Bonici was wanted in connection with his actions as the former chairman of Bonlat, Parmalat’s subsidiary in the Cayman Islands that has a central role in the company’s bankruptcy.

The Parmalat scandal emerged on Dec. 19 after the company acknowledged that Bonlat didn’t have $5 billion it claimed was in a Bank of America account. The bank said the letter guaranteeing the money was fake.

In a telephone interview Friday, Tuccari said Bonici merely followed orders from company headquarters in the Parma suburb of Collecchio. He said Parmalat would fax Bonici the last page of Bonlat contracts for him to sign, but that he never knew their contents.

“He never saw anything, and only followed the orders of Collecchio,” Tuccari said.

Meanwhile, Italian financial police on Friday searched the Milan offices of Bank of America at the request of prosecutors, a judicial source said. The bank did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

The search came a day after prosecutors said they were investigating Luca Sala, a former Bank of America employee who resigned last summer and worked as a consultant at Parmalat.

Also added to the list on Thursday were two officials with auditor Deloitte & Touche’s Italian branch.

None of the 25 people under investigation has been charged. So far, eight people, including Parmalat founder Calisto Tanzi, have been arrested in the case.

Italian prosecutors say Tanzi, who is being held in a Milan prison, has admitted to a $10 billion shortfall in Parmalat’s balance sheet and acknowledged that up to $640 million was diverted from the company to his family’s tourism businesses to cover losses.

The investigation has expanded beyond Italy. On Thursday, officials in Luxembourg announced they had opened a money-laundering investigation.

Parmalat has filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors and has been declared insolvent. Under the bankruptcy plan, business turnaround expert Enrico Bondi has been trying to save the company.

Parmalat is Italy’s eighth-largest company, with operations in 30 countries and 36,000 employees.

On Friday, the European Union said it was reviewing the Italian bankruptcy decree to see whether it is in line with EU rules on public subsidies.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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